This Thursday, 15 August marks the beginning of Obon in most of Japan. Obon is a Buddhist custom in Japan where families gather together and are visited by the spirits of their ancestors. Various festivals are held to welcome the ghosts with music and dancing, depending on the region.
However, one tradition that is fairly consistent across the country is known as Ohakamairi (visiting the grave). This custom involves the family going to their grave to clean it and give presents to their deceased ancestors.
Since the majority of people in Japan are cremated after death, family lines tend to share a grave traditionally passed down to the oldest son of the family. In addition, the main home of a family usually has an altar of sorts (known as a bustudan) to pray to their ancestors.
During Obon the spirits of these ancestors are said to enter the realm of the living. The living family’s responsibility is to welcome them by cleaning the grave, giving presents, and lighting incense or building very small fires outside the home to guide them.
When you arrive at the temple where the grave is located you can usually borrow a bucket of water, but you may need to bring your own cloths to wipe it down with. While soaking the rag in the water it’s time to pick up any litter that happens to be around and pull out weeds from the surrounding area.
The rag should be wrung out strongly before wiping the grave with it. Many people pour the water over top of the grave, but Misa Kasuga of the website Happism maintains that this is a faux pas, saying that this is offensive to the spirits of our ancestors, and is like splashing a living person over the head with a bucket of cold water.
When the grave is nice and shiny then the fresh flowers can be arranged. Special types of flowers are preferred for graves called bukka (lit. Buddha flowers). They are usually mild in color and scent and are often prepared by the temple. Chrysanthemums are the most popular choices, but it’s also fine to use any flower that the deceased particularly liked. Many graves have built-in holders for the flowers.
Next comes the incense. An entire bundle of sticks should be lit to produce a decent amount of smoke according to Ms. Kasuga. This smoke is said to ward off other spirits that don’t have any family of their own to take care of their grave (known as moenbotoke) and try to muscle in on yours.
After lighting the incense you should press your hands together to say thanks to your ancestors for helping bring you into the world and ask that they continue to watch over the family and offer guidance and protection. When all is said and done you give a bow and get ready to leave.
During the lighting of the incense you might have laid out an offering, usually something a recently deceased person used to like. Walking around a cemetery you’ll usually see cans of coffee, beer, or sake sitting out, possibly even various snacks.
When the grave visit is finished you can do whatever you want with the present, you can even take it back home or consume it yourself. Much like with the living, it’s the thought that counts. Many people simply leave the gift sitting on the grave, but temple staff doesn’t really appreciate this as they ultimately have to take care of it, so try to be considerate and come back for it later if you want to leave it for a while. If I suddenly find myself homeless and hungry though, I know exactly where go…
Before heading home, you must return the bucket and empty out the excess water. Ms. Kasuga again points out that you shouldn’t pour the water near the grave either, as there is usually poor drainage and the moisture can cause the grave to weather more quickly.
If all goes well then you should be accompanied home by the pleased ghosts of your ancestors! As spooky as that might seem, at least they don’t complain and eat all your food.
Happy Obon, everyone!